As the first generation of Marvel superheroes hangs up their claws and helmets, we wonder just how long pop culture will actually let them stay dead.
Right now, Wolverine is dead.
Well, kind of. Currently in the comic books, he’s fine: Logan was recently resurrected, and there might even be two versions of the character running around, but it’s all very convoluted and I’m not quite sure. But on-screen – and in the eyes of a much larger audience – Canada’s angriest mutant is six feet under. Seventeen years after his first time wielding the adamantium claws, Hugh Jackman buried Wolverine and walked away from the role that made him a star.
But how long will Wolverine stay dead?
Two years ago, Logan served as a genuinely shocking entry into the superhero genre. Spandex and capes were absent, with “Wolverine” re-contextualized as the protagonist of a bloody neo-western. But director James Mangold saved his biggest twist for last: in the final moments, Logan’s story definitively ends, giving his life to protect his adopted daughter.
There was no post-credits stinger hinting at Wolverine’s eventual return, no screenwriters teasing a potential comeback in any interviews that followed. Everyone involved with the production seemed like they were on the same page: after nine feature-film appearances, Logan had earned a rest. It’s a storytelling choice without much parallel in the crowded field of superhero movies: even Christopher Nolan’s “gritty,” self-contained trilogy couldn’t “kill” The Batman.
Then came Avengers: Endgame. The twenty-second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe boasts some of the first “real” deaths this franchise has seen. Tent-pole Avengers Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff (or Iron Man and Black Widow, if you like) both made sacrifice plays in order to defeat Thanos, and like in Logan, there’s a lot of care put into these sequences, two sincerely touching moments in the midst of a 3-hour blockbuster (to this critic, at least).
But it seems silly to think of these deaths as permanent. Endgame’s predecessor, the bloated Infinity War, got by on the shock value of dusting most of the Marvel roster. But these “deaths” obviously wouldn’t last – how were we supposed to take Black Panther or Spider-Man’s disintegrations seriously when they both had sequels in the pipeline? Back in the original Avengers, the death of Agent Coulson motivated the struggling team – only for Coulson to be revived for a mediocre ABC spin-off.
Endgame even found an out for Loki, whose death at the start of Infinity War was meant to signal a shift to the audience – Thanos literally says “no resurrections this time.” I guess whoever green-lit Loki’s upcoming Disney+ series didn’t get the message.
If superhero movies want to stick around and dominate for another decade, they’ll need to transcend the flaws of their parent-medium.
It’s tough to blame Marvel bringing so many characters back – it’s a part of the formula that’s brought them so much success. The MCU has thrived by doing its best to adapt comic book storytelling to the big screen, constructing an interconnected universe that allows for crossovers galore.
But a key aspect of the way comics perpetually tell engaging stories is their cheap relationship with death. Ask any veteran reader, and they’ll tell you that “no one stays dead in comics.” Phony fatalities are commonplace, a crutch used by writers to boost waning sales or shift the spotlight (momentarily). I can’t really tell you how Wolverine is alive again today, but I can say that when Marvel made the decision to “kill” him back in 2014, it was clear he wouldn’t stay dead for long.
So of all the ways Mangold subverted the genre in Logan, his construction of Wolverine’s death felt like the most radical move. In other words, a lot of comic book movies have succeeded by emulating their source material, but the latest set of adaptations has the potential to improve upon its inspiration, by letting the deaths last.
Why does Wolverine or Iron Man have to come back? There’s an endless backlog of other interesting characters to pull from, a strategy that’s already paid off (just think of Shazam! or the Guardians movies).
No doubt this plea will fall on deaf ears. Endgame’s end-credits feature a vague clanging, a soft allusion that Stark’s story isn’t over. In the wake of the Disney-Fox merger, the X-Men will soon enter the MCU, meaning we’ll probably soon see a revived-and-re-cast Wolverine. Even Vision, one of the few characters not explicitly brought back from Thanos’ actions in Infinity War, will somehow be back for another Disney+ show.
Fan-favorites Black Widow and the aforementioned Loki are both getting continuations of their stories, though both will apparently be prequels (taking place before Endgame, also, it’s telling that Marvel killed Natasha, before financing her solo outing). Still, we’re at a unique moment for comic book adaptations: in the wake of Endgame and Logan, audiences have mourned and accepted the deaths of Iron Man, Black Widow, and Wolverine.
And yet, as soon as footage of the “new” Wolverine hits the internet, the final sequence in Logan will be minimized. If the Marvel execs can lure Robert Downey Jr. back to the franchise that made him one of the wealthiest actors in the world, the meaning and gravitas of Tony Stark’s last moments will be reduced.
The comics try to have their cake and eat it too: provoke an emotional response from readers by killing off characters, then reap the benefits of bringing them back a few years later. It’s an industry-wide flaw. If superhero movies want to stick around and dominate for another decade, they’ll need to transcend the flaws of their parent medium. In this case, it shouldn’t be that hard: all they have to do is be consistent, respect the movies they’ve already made, and let Wolverine stay dead.